February 12, 1996
ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S BIRTHDAY: WHAT MAKES A STRONG LEADER?
Professor David Herbert Donald
has been studying Lincoln and the Civil War his whole life. His
latest book, "Lincoln"
depicts a youthful and vigorous Lincoln--one of the youngest men
to occupy the White House.
Donald's view is that Lincoln was an essentially passive personality--
a man who preferred to react to events rather than take a position
that might put him far in advance of public opinion. Lincoln summarized
his attitude in his motto: "My policy is to have no policy."
It was a doctrine that infuriated his critics, who claimed that
it showed the President had no principles, but his fatalism also
produced some of his most lovable traits: his compassion, his
tolerance, and his willingness to overlook mistakes.
What kind of leadership model was Abraham Lincoln, both in myth
and reality? How important is it for a leader to take bold stands
and fight for his or her beliefs?
And what do we really want from our Chief Executive? Is this era
of opinion-polling and concensus-building any different from Lincoln's
time? How do recent Presidents compare with Lincoln?
for David Herbert Donald's dialogue with David Gergen.
A question from Joseph A McDonald of Burlington, Vermont
Here we are at the real beginning of the 1996 campaign with the
Iowa caucus. How do you think Lincoln would fair today if he were
here to run for President? Would he be charismatic enough (and
telegenic enough)? No doubt his humor and quick wit would serve
him well. Which of his other characteristics would help/hurt him?
What would a "Lincoln in 1996" campaign look like? I
would hate to think that someone like Lincoln would not be able
to reach the Presidency today.
Prof. Donald responds:
I'm not sure Lincoln would fare well if he were a presidential
candidate today. For one thing, people thought of him as extraordinarily
ugly--almost grotesque.. This is hard for us, brought up to revere
and admire Lincoln to believe, but it is true. Then his voice--a
high, penetrating tenor, which carried out to the edge of a crowd
of 10,000--would not seem suited to the more intimate medium of
television. And, finally, Lincoln was not a good impromptu speaker;
he was at his best when he could read from a carefully prepared
manuscript. Though maybe a teleprompter could have helped that!
A question from Michael Berkwits of Philadelphia, PA
I have been struck in reading your book with the tremendous parallels
between Lincoln's political strategies and those of Bill Clinton.
Both were/are situated in times of enormous transition where uncertainty
and fractiousness ruled the day, and both have done what they
could to balance themselves within the extraordinary number of
claims and principles about which the body politic is infuriated
and impassioned. (Also, both had extraordinarily contentious 1st
terms, and have appeared to consolidate their support and positions
entering into their 2nd general election.) Could you comment on
the similarities and differences between Lincoln and Bill Clinton,
and could you hazard a guess as an historian how history will
judge Clinton given his accomplishments so far.
Prof. Donald responds:
There are indeed some interesting parallels between Lincoln and
Clinton: both from relatively backward states; both lacking much
experience; both gifted orators; both elected by narrow pluralities;
both blessed--or afflicted!--with strong-willed wives; both needing
to learn the job after they were inaugurated. But there are also
differences. First, the crisis that Lincoln faced was qualitatively
different from the relatively minor problems confronting the country
during Clinton's administration. Second, there was never any doubt
about Lincoln's absolute honesty and integrity. And, finally,
I don't see in Clinton's speeches any of the soaring, enduring
rhetoric that characterizes Lincoln's best speeches.
A question from Frederick H. Bartlett of Mercerville, NJ
Lincoln was no shyer than any recent president about invoking
his God in support of his policies -- albeit (or so it seems to
me) with greater humility.
How would you contrast Lincoln's religion with that of the age
of the presidential prayer breakfast?
And what did Lincoln's countrymen think of his mixture of religion
and politics? (Did they remark upon it at all?)
Prof. Donald responds:
In Lincoln's day a President's religion was a very private affair.
There were no public prayer meetings, no attempts to woo the Religious
Right. Few of Lincoln's countrymen knew anything at all of his
It is certainly true that Lincoln repeatedly invoked the blessings
of God on the Union cause. It is also true that he wrote leaders
of some of the major churches--Bishop Hughes of the Catholic Church,
Bishop Simpson of the Methodist Church, for example--but he solicited
not their religious views but their advice about particular problems--e.g.,
what to do with the Sioux Indians captured after a massacre.
In short, Lincoln lived in a fortunate day when the President's
religious beliefs (like his sexual practices) were off limits
A question from Jean Goodwin of Evanston, Illinois
"Passivity" isn't the right word for a character that
showed itself capable of producing such great effects, is it?
Keeping an eye on both the possible and the ideal, Lincoln may
have seemed recalcitrant, motionless or passive to the more narrowly
practical and more exclusively idealistic politicians of his day.
But his imagination of what we could be--"created equal"--
still rings true, while the other, local passions have faded.
What if we were to continue to fight racism, "until all the
wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited
toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the
lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword?"--wouldn't
that be a stand much more "active" than the most affirmative
actions we've yet tried?
Prof. Donald responds:
Well, I have run into considerable criticism for saying Lincoln
had a "passive personality," and perhaps the choice
of words may have been ill-advised. (I used the phrase in the
psychoanalytical sense--as in "passive-aggressive personality"--and
expected everybody to recognize that. But a lot of people have
taken "passive" to mean lazy, inactive, or unambitious--none
of which, surely, applied to Lincoln.)
By "passivity" I mean simply that Lincoln was not a
leader to come out with bold programs, to advance far ahead of
public opinion, to take daring risks. Note how he responded to
the slavery issue as President. Antislavery but committed to upholding
the Constitutional provisions guaranteeing the peculiar institution,
he tried everything else before going to an emancipation proclamation--gradual,
compensated emancipation, colonization, etc., etc. Only as events
compelled him to take action did he issue his September 1862 proclamation.
(And remember that great Lincoln letter stating: "Events
have controlled me.")
A question from Jeffery Beckner of St. Louis, MO
Regarding the letter written in the dog days of the summer of
1864 at Raymond's (?) urging -- the one to Davis with the "let
him try me" line. How close do you think Lincoln actually
came to abandoning emancipation? Was his motivation here based
on his expectation of losing the election, and therefore he was
trying to salvage anything he could before then? Or did he think
he might be reflecting public opinion at that moment?
Prof. Donald responds:
Lincoln's 1864 letter to Raymond was, I believe, a deliberate
ploy to get Raymond, chairman of the Republican National Committee,
to see how futile attempts at negotiation with the Confederates
would be. Indeed, he laid this letter before Raymond, and the
New York editor, after studying it, recognized the utter impracticability
of such negotiations. Thus, skillfully, instead of rebuking Raymond,
Lincoln set forth the facts in a way that Raymond had to understand
how impracticable his plans had been.
A question from John S. DeMott of Alexandria, Virginia
Could it be argued that by not replacing McClellan until after
the general had lost -- or not fought --many battles that Lincoln
in fact prolonged the Civil War by many years? After the Army
of the Potomac was assembled and trained, why didn't Lincoln move
decisively to use it, crush Lee and end the bloodshed? And can't
he be faulted for not doing so?
Prof. Donald responds
Like you, I have sometimes been impatient with Lincoln for not
replacing McClellan much earlier. And then I began to think: Who
on earth could have he put in McClellan's place? McDowell was
discredited, as was John Pope. McClellan's division commanders
had yet to demonstrate any great ability at independent action.
The several political generals, like Fremont, Banks, and Butler,
would clearly have been disasters. Sherman was an unknown but
was thought to be crazy. And Grant had yet to show what he was
But I do agree that one of Lincoln's faults was his excessive
loyalty to his subordinates--whether in the military or in the
A question from Jessica Bar of New York, NY
How is the Lincoln in your book different from Gore Vidal's Lincoln?
Prof. Donald responds:
Finally, to Jessica Bar, I can say that I am a great admirer of
Gore Vidal's Lincoln, which he was kind enough to ask me to read
in manuscript for him, and I think it is one of the great portraits
of the President. My own differs somewhat in that it is more closely
grounds in fact--and remember that Vidal's work is fiction, not
history--and that it is based upon more intimate knowledge of
behind-the-scenes activities in Civil War Washington. in addition,
Vidal's Lincoln is--quite properly--a heroic figure who moves
to change the very nature of American government and American
society. Mine is a more troubled, pragmatic Lincoln, who was working
out solutions to difficult problems always without a fixed plan
or ideology in mind, save his determination to save the Union.
Mr. Vidal and I had a considerable correspondence about his manuscript,
and he was gracious enough to accept a good many of my suggested
revisions. But on occasion he would refuse, saying that he knew
very well that I was factually correct but that, for the purposes
of his novel, he had to state his case in such-and-such a way.
He was, I think, entirely correct in so doing--but, of course,
as a historical biographer, I did not have the liberty of tampering
with even the smallest of facts.
Comments by visitors besides those answered by Professor Donald
Fred L. Williams of Washington, D.C.
Just finished Donald's wonderful biography of AL. AL personified
Machiavelli's lion and fox, virtu vs fortuna.
The Republic was facing dissolution. Lincoln reacted to unprecedented
challenges, waiting for them to mature, yet he clung to his moral
condemnation of slavery and to his devotion to the rule of law
in the Constitution. One cannot imagine him pushing the General
harder, or of developing a more amenable cabinet. May be I'm enthralled,
but I think Machiavelli, a man devoted to peace and order in the
face of chaos, would have admired AL's princely Presidency for
all its warts. Lincoln always put the union first, as Machiavelli
would have counseled.
Daniel Kevin Hand of Los Angeles, CA
Personally, I consider Lincoln the second-most-overrated of our
42 presidents (behind Dick Nixon). Whatever his personal qualities
that have endeared him to Americans and historians alike, the
essence of his presidency was the death of nearly two-thirds of
a million Americans-- himself included-- just to maintain a Union
that had grown untenable. The "oversight" of the Founding
Fathers in not creating an "Exit Clause" for disgruntled
states was one that should have been remedied by constitutional
amendment, not four horrific years of civil war. Even if one grants
that such a war was necessary and justifiable, Lincoln's handling
of it as Commander-in-Chief, particularly his handling of his
high command, made what was destined to be a quick romp turn into
a dress rehearsal for World War I. By my lights, the only saving
grace for Lincoln was his assassination within days of the Union
victory. Would he have fared as well in history, Professor, had
he served out his second term in good health?
Nate Levy of Austin, TX
I disagree with your assessment that Lincoln had a passive leadership
style. In Lincoln's debate with Douglas, it was Lincoln who believed
men shouldn't have slaves and thus "own" them as they
cross state line. Douglas seemed to be the who went with the status
Also, I feel Lincoln's rosy vision of this country was ahead of
the curve, so to speak. In The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln spoke
of men being equal, when it fact there was slavery.
Overall, Lincoln tried to communicate to people that we should
strive for a better nation, where people were equal, compared
to a divided nation.
Thank you for the opportunity to voice my opinion.
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